September 22, 2018
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The law that gives the government control of men’s bodies

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Sarah Smiley, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Last week, as U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, pressed Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about his views on Roe v. Wade, she asked him this:

“Can you think of any laws that give the government power to make decisions about the male body?”

Kavanaugh, a U.S. appellate judge, responded, “I’m not aware — I’m not — thinking of any right now, senator.”

Let me help: How about the draft?

Authorized 101 years ago under Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the Selective Service System requires all men ages 18 to 25 living in the United States, no matter their citizenship or immigration status, to register for possible conscription into the armed services. According to law, all men must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

[Sarah Smiley: Why it’s time to abandon the phrase ‘all-volunteer military’]

The penalties for not registering are steep, even though the United States has not used the draft since 1973. Non-registration is a felony and punishable by imprisonment for up to five years or fines up to $250,000. Although these punishments are seldom enforced, there are other consequences imposed on a man who doesn’t register. He can’t qualify for federal student loans or grants. He isn’t eligible for federal jobs or security clearances. He isn’t able to apply for or renew a driver’s license in some states. And if he is an immigrant, he cannot become a U.S. citizen.

Besides the fact that these penalties are biased toward economic class (if you are wealthy enough to not need a federal grant to go to school, you probably don’t need to fear your non-registration status), they deliberately do not apply to women. There is no woman in the United States who must first register with the government and submit to conscription into military service against her will before she can get a driver’s license, apply for loans or get a federal job.

For decades, Selective Service did not apply to women because most military positions were not open to them. All of that changed in 2015 when then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter overturned a long-held policy and opened all military combat jobs to women. However, in the three years since that historic moment, Selective Service registration, plus the penalties for non-registration, has not applied to women.

“There will be no exceptions,” Carter stated at the 2015 news conference unveiling the military’s new position on combat jobs.

No exceptions — except possible conscription for America’s women, too.

[Sarah Smiley: Selective Service for women gets even closer]

If you think being drafted doesn’t mean the government has the “power to make decisions about the male body,” you should talk to thousands of Vietnam veterans whose lives and bodies were permanently altered after being called into service. You should talk to the families of men who never came home, all because their number was next on the government’s list. And you should talk to the men who were exposed to chemicals and vaccinations solely because they were enlisted.

Once forced into military service, the government can tell a man everything, from how to wear his hair to when he should reasonably expect to die for his country, even if it’s not his choice. The government can interrupt family planning, professional goals and relationships. No questions. No exceptions.

Each year, millions of young men register for Selective Service — some to do “what’s right,” some for fear of consequences, some because of both. But each year, when those men sign their name on the dotted line, they are effectively giving power to the government, should the government need it, to alter their lives, bodies and futures.

So, yes, there is a law that gives the government power over men’s bodies, and it’s called the Selective Service. Someday, all three of my sons will be subjected to it.

What bothers me about the exchange between Harris and Kavanaugh has nothing to do with Roe v. Wade. What bothers me is that when considering whether the government can exert power over men’s bodies, neither a U.S. senator (who never raised young boys) nor a U.S. judge (who only has daughters) acknowledged our country’s boys and the law that ultimately could cause them to live or die for their government, perhaps against their will.

Sarah Smiley is the author of “Got Here As Soon As I Could” and “Dinner With The Smileys.” She has been a military dependent for more than 40 years. Read more at SarahSmiley.com.

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